Chris Carmichael

Cav's biggest threat

2009-07-16 11:54
Chris Carmichael (File)
Chris Carmichael

Tyler's getting closer! The young sprinter from Garmin-Slipstream finished second in Stage 11 to Mark Cavendish as he won his fourth stage of the 2009 Tour de France, and I think Tyler is learning quickly and will soon find a way to get past Cavendish for a stage win.

Tyler Farrar is one of the only sprinters in the world who has beaten Mark Cavendish in 2009, winning a sprint finish in the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race in Italy. He has the speed and power to challenge Cavendish, and he's both smart and aggressive - two attributes that separate champions from guys who just happen to be fast. Farrar may not have gotten around Cavendish at the end, but he was closer to victory than he has been in previous stages of this year's race. To me that shows he's learning. He's not content to try the same tactics over and over again, in hopes of getting a different result.

Cavendish is the world's top sprinter right now, and that's a position that doesn't typically last very long. The difference between winning and losing these sprints is very small and to be a dominant sprinter you have to be at your very best. Lose a little bit of your edge, and that's all it takes to go from winning by a bike length and losing by half a wheel. Cavendish could be the dominant sprinter for the next two to four years, and he could very well follow in German sprinter Erik Zabel's footsteps. Zabel won the green points jersey six times, but he was only a dominant sprinter for the first few of those years. In the last three years of his green jersey run, he captured the points title by finishing consistently near the front of the sprints, but his stage wins grew few and far between.

Erik Zabel is an advisor to the Columbia-HTC team and has been mentoring Cavendish. In my opinion, there's no better person for Cavendish to learn from, especially because Zabel had the experience of going from being a dominant sprinter to a strong finisher who more frequently crossed the line in second, third or fourth. Zabel's long career is an illustration of how a sprinter can continue to be successful even after some young kid comes up and takes over the mantel of being the top sprinter in the world.

Farrar looks to have what it takes to develop into a dominating sprinter. He's already won some major races in the United States and in Europe, he's beating riders who have more experience than he does, and he's showing versatility in the ways he's executing his finishes. Years ago when Mario Cipollini was the dominant sprinter, the way to beat him was to disrupt his leadout train. He liked well-organised finishes as opposed to more chaotic ones where sprinters were keying off each other instead of being led to the final 300 meters by a line of team-mates. In contrast, Robbie McEwen earned his place as a dominant sprinter by not having a large and well-organised leadout train. He was best in hectic finishes, and his explosive power gave him an edge in uphill sprints. Cavendish appears to be a combination of the two: he definitely likes to have a strong leadout train, but appears to be pretty well versed at finding his way to the front in less structured sprints as well.

For his part, Farrar seems to share a lot in common with Cavendish, in terms of his ability and resourcefulness in sprints; Cavendish is just a little bit faster right now. With sprints, there are so many variables you can't plan for. In Stage 10, it appeared that Farrar wanted to go around George Hincapie just as the Columbia-HTC rider finished his pull at the front of the leadout train. But since they were approaching a 90-degree turn, Farrar was forced to go wide in order to avoid a collision with Hincapie (which may very well be why George chose that as the place he would pull off). As a result, Farrar lost a little speed around that corner, went a slightly longer distance, and had to dig deep to get back into the sprint. Similarly, it appeared that Thor Hushovd hesitated as he entered the same corner, because he saw Hincapie and Farrar getting together ahead of him. He backed off to improve his chances of getting through the corner if Farrar or Hincapie crashed in front of him, but that led him to lose a few bike lengths to Cavendish and his final leadout man, Mark Renshaw, and you can't afford to give Columbia a few bike lengths as you head out of a corner in the final kilometre of a race.

In Stage 11, Farrar was sitting on Hushovd's wheel as Cavendish began his surge toward the finish. As Hushovd faded, Farrar went around him to the left. Since the finish was just shortly after a right-hand bend, going left added a few meters to his route to the finish line, and possibly cost him the stage win. But keep in mind, in the heat of the moment, a sprinter has to react with split-second timing. It's easy for me to sit here and say he might have won if he had gone right instead of left, but at that moment, seeing the situation as it unfolded, Farrar thought going left was his best option - and at that moment it very well could have been.

Cavendish is fast, but he's not unbeatable. He may have a great team leading him into the finish, but they are not unbeatable either. Cavendish is likely to win a lot of races in the coming years, but I won't be surprised at all to see Farrar develop into Cavendish's toughest rival. Tour de France stage wins will come to Farrar, and I think he may become US cycling's first legitimate contender for the green jersey.


Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). For more information on CTS' Create Your Own Comeback program, the free Do the Tour...Stay at Home(tm) training programme, and the free CTS Tour de France Newsletter, visit You can also follow Chris at


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